CHURCHILL — Their ticket is punched.
For the first time in three years Manhattan Christian will be a participant at next week’s state Class C tournament. The Eagles earned a berth Friday evening by sweeping longtime nemesis Gardiner in the undefeated semifinal of the Western C Divisional.
The Bruins had won three of the previous four meeting this season, but had no answer well-placed kills by Kellie Van Kirk and the blocking of Kelsey Heidema.
“I’m just on a high right now. Just so excited,” Van Kirk, a 6-foot junior, said. “I waited three years for this and it’s finally come.”
Van Kirk tallied a match-high 15 kills, 15 digs and two aces in the 25-19, 25-22, 25-16 victory. It avenged a pair of losses at last week’s district tournament to the Bruins.
It was just the second loss of the season for Gardiner (19-2), which will play Ennis in the consolation match Saturday at 11 a.m. The winner will need to beat Christian twice in order to win the divisional championship.
“That’s a hard road that loser-out bracket. I have been in it many times. “It’s hard to come back and play that many,” longtime Eagles coach Jill Ayers said. “So we’re going to have to touch base with the same things that we talked about tonight. Just playing level headed and playing together. We’ll see what happens, but it is a relief to have that (ticket punched).”
Christian (18-3) controlled the match from the outset with Kiersten Van Kirk, a 6-foot-1 middle hitter, scoring four of her team’s first six points on kills. Kellie Van Kirk later capped the opening set with back-to-back kills.
While the Van Kirk sisters were scoring pretty much at ease, Heidema was disrupting the Bruins’ offense. She continually got touches on the ball, which limited the effectiveness outside hitter Josie Thomas and middle hitter Kyndra Long.
“We worked on this in practice a lot just lining up with the (hitter's) arm and then getting up and over for sure," Heidema, who finished with five blocks, said. "We moved the block so we could block Josie and line up with Kyndra’s quick (set)."
A Heidema tip off a bad pass by the Bruins gave Christian a 20-16 lead in the second set, which was eventually capped by a Kellie Van Kirk kill. Then the Eagles gradually pulled away in the third after rallying to knot the score at 14.
The victory was in stark contrast to Thursday’s error-prone performance. Yes, the Eagles won a pair of matches against Clark Fork and Twin Bridges, but simply did not play well.
Ayers spoke to her team about competing with a more stable emotional level against Gardiner.
“Not get as excited and not get so down. Just play more even keeled,” she said. “You have two seconds to get over an error. We talked about that and so tonight we were working on no pouty body language. Two seconds, take a deep breath, and then it’s gone. There’s nothing you can do about it anyway.”
The team didn’t let loose until the final point of the match when Taylor DeVries managed to score on a contested tip.
“We just all combined as one team. They were excited for each other and they just brought a huge amount of energy,” Kellie Van Kirk said. “I think that just helped up our play.”
Manhattan Christian def. Gardiner 25-19, 25-22, 25-16.
MANHATTAN CHRISTIAN (18-3) – Kills: 32 (Kellie Van Kirk 15, Kiersten Van Kirk 9). Digs: 71 (Maddie Liudahl 19, Ke. Van Kirk 15). Blocks: 9 (Kelsey Heidema 5). Aces: 3 (Ke. Van Kirk 2). Assists: 27 (Taylor DeVries 20).
GARDINER (19-2) – Kills: 31 (Abby Dean 10). Digs: 76 (Chloe Chase 15, Dean 15). Blocks: 2 (Kyndra Long 2). Aces: 4 (Long 2). Assists: 31 (Chase Cunningham 30).